Adam DeGraff


Bill Berkson's Fugue State

I was first turned onto Bill Berkson's poetry when a friend handed me a copy of his book, Enigma Variations. I was surprised to finally find a book of poetry in which the aesthetics of each of the poems included differed not only from one another, but also from any other poem ever written an orchard of one-of-a-kind trees.

Since this big bang of a book I have watched Berkson's oeuvre evolve into its current universe, a book from Zoland Press entitled Fugue State. This book is a further variation of the enigma, a book one doesn't so much get, as keep on getting. If rereadability is a virtue of poetry, then this book is brimming with virtue, to the point of seeming fresh with meaning every time I reread it. For this reason it would be presumptuous for me to try to stake any totalizing claim on Fugue State.

I read it, rather, for the beauty of the forms it offers me.


Single point perspective got fudged.
The bird in the house flies in the eye of the god
Lounging at length across the field, a simple song.
One has to envision language or it's no help.
Know history backwards.
Lay into life.

Later on in the book, using a trick that hearkens back to his first book Saturday Night; Poems 1960-1961, Berkson will employ this same shape for a poem entitled, as fortune would have it, "All My Songs Come Unannounced." This technique seems to function as a kind of subliminal foreshadowing, an announcement, for the reader. Berkson also tends to use the same kind of trick with content as well. For instance the latter poem mentioned ends with the line, "What didn't happen once?" Twenty pages later a poem entitled "Volition" ends with the line, "he wants to know what still hasn't happened."

Beyond form, as if it were possible, I read Fugue State for what sense I can make it make at the moment I am reading it, which arguably has more to do with what I happen to be thinking about and feeling that day than what Berkson once was. (What didn't happen once, I ask myself? What still hasn't happened?) This is in keeping with the title, Fugue State, which Berkson
defines in the endnotes as "a disturbed state of consciousness in which the one affected seems to perform acts in full awareness but upon recovery cannot recollect the deeds." Therefore I read it as a kind of oracle, in the tradition of Wallace Stevens, delivered by an ultra-sophisticated idiot

I read it because I am intrigued by the world of the poet it constantly covers and uncovers. Consider this allegory:


You know how
when two red lights

flash in the rearview mirror
and it could be a cop or only another

motorist braking
in the opposite lane?

That's just the way it's been
with me, somewhat.

Beyond form and meaning and revelation, as if it weren't possible, I read it for the nuanced sensations it rewards the diligent reader, a twisting and tweaking of The True inside a comic frame of refined elegance that is particular to Berkson. The first stanza of the first poem "A Head at the Covers" reads:

I removed the rains and motored
and flipped through the covers of a board
a card with shavings labeled to a lace cross
in the mirror-narrow confines of an
eyesore fog you can fly
over still and put
your finger on a dune

Regardless of sense, the music alone is marvelous. Reread the previous passage with sense removed and it consistently delights and puzzles the ear. Then add sense again and begin to notice the precise use of words to get underneath the mysteries of being aware. This is what, more than anything else, keeps me coming back to Berkson's work, the inherent mystery, not so much to try to solve it, but rather to immerse myself in it. In this sense Fugue State feels too personal, too revealing, to say anything about, which is its highest recommendation. The best way to review this book would be to construct the review out of nothing but quotes from within it. Or perhaps it would be best to review this book yourself by reading it and rereading it, again and again, on a deserted island, with time on your side.

but I'm with
the sun bolting
all the ledges
my odd blue dots anchored
I barely think to what
since what has gone and merged

I would be remiss if I did not mention the terrific painting by Yvonne Jacquette on the cover of Fugue State. It depicts, in evening yellows and blues, a view from the World Trade Center. And though the book was published prior to the 9/11 felling of the twin towers, it nonetheless eerily informs the poems within. Until the next reading